An incredibly broad category of cinematic expression, traditionally, the only common characteristic to all documentary films is that they are meant to be non-fiction films. The French used the term to refer to any non-fiction film, including travelogues and instructional videos. The earliest "moving pictures" were by definition documentary. They were single shot, moments that were captures on film. Whether it be a train entering a station, a boat docking, or a factory of people getting off work, early film (pre-1900) was dominated by the novelty of showing an event. These short films were called "actualities." Very little storytelling took place before the turn of the century, due mostly to technological limitations.
With Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North in the 1920s, documentary film embraced romanticism; Flaherty went on to film a number of heavily staged romantic films, usually showing how his subjects would have lived 100 years earlier and not how they lived right then (for instance, in Nanook of the North Flaherty does not allow his subjects to shoot a walrus with a shotgun nearby, but has them use a harpoon instead, putting themselves in considerable danger). In later years, attempts to steer the action in this way have come to be considered both unethical and contradictory to the nature of documentary film.
The newsreel tradition is an important tradition in documentary film; newsreels were also sometimes staged but were usually reenactments of events that had already happened, not attempts to steer events as they were in the process of happening. For instance, much of the battle footage from the early 20th century was staged--the cameramen would usually arrive on site after a major battle and reenact scenes to film them. Dziga Vertov was involved with the Russian Kino-Pravda newsreel series ("Kino-Pravda" means literally, "film-truth," a term that was later translated literally into the French cinema verite). Frank Capra's "Why We Fight" series was a newsreel series in the United States, commissioned by the government to convince the U.S. public that it was time to go to war.
The continental, or realist, tradition focused on man within man-made environments, and included the so-called "city symphony" films such as Berlin, Symphony of a City, Rien Que Les Heurs, and Man with a Movie Camera. These films tended to feature people as products of their environment, and leaned towards the impersonal or avant-garde.
The propagandist tradition consisted of films made with the explicit purpose of persuading an audience of a point. Some of the more noted propaganda films include Triumph of the Will and Reefer Madness. Frank Capra's Why We Fight newsreel series was explicitly contracted as a propaganda series, in response to Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph of the Will; the series covered different aspects of World War II and had the daunting task of persuading the United States public to go to war. The series has been selected for preservation in the United States' National Film Registry.
In the 1930s, documentarian and film critic John Grierson argued in his essay "First Principles of Documentary" that Robert Flaherty's film Moana had "documentary value," and put forward a number of principles of documentary. These principles were that cinema's potential for observing life could be exploited in a new art form; that the "original" actor and "original" scene are better guides than their fiction counterparts to interpreting the modern world; and that materials "thus taken from the raw" can be more real than the acted article. In this regard, Grierson's views align with Dziga Vertov's contempt for dramatic fiction as "bourgeois excess," though with considerably more subtlety.
1927-present day (Early Sound Era)
- John Grierson
- Pare Lorentz
- John Grierson
- National Film Board of Canada
- EMB Film Unit
- Leni Riefenstahl
- The March of Time
Contemporary Documentary filmmakers:
- Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Vernon, Florida, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control)
- Michael Moore (The Big One, Roger and Me)
- Barbar Kopple (Wild Man Blues, Harlan County U.S.A.)
- Steve James (Hoop Dreams)
- Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (Brothers Keeper, Paradise Lost-- The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills